Thank you for subscribing!
Got it! Thank you!
Pat Boone Secretly Forced South Africa to Suspend Apartheid for His Concerts | Frommer's TCM

Pat Boone Secretly Forced South Africa to Suspend Apartheid for His Concerts

The 88-year-old singer and movie star discusses taking a stand early in his career.

Since 2011, the TCM Classic Cruise, produced by the team that programs the Turner Classic Movies channel, has invited entertainment celebrities and notables to join paying guests on specified cruise sailings for on-board screenings, interviews, meet-and-greets, and other mixers.

The vacations give stars—who in the past have included luminaries such as Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Cicely Tyson, Robert Wagner, and Tab Hunter—a chance to hobnob among fans, take a victory lap with a crowd that's versed in their triumphs, and sometimes—if they want to—to set the record straight about little-known aspects of their careers.

In November 2022, the five-night event set sail aboard the Disney Dream. Pat Boone, one of the most popular heartthrobs of the 1950s, attended at age 88 and sat down with TCM host Alicia Malone in the Walt Disney Theatre to recount his career, telling a little-known story about his travels.

"People don't know this. I said I wouldn't talk about it back then because it might make the news, but I was asked to go to South Africa in 1960. My career was white hot. I was getting offers from all over the world. Elvis and I were competing record-for-record through the 1950s. I had 41 chart records in the '50s, and he had 40. But I had a 6-month head start, and we were buddies.

"So I'm being asked to come to South Africa and do my concerts there. And I said, 'Well, I understand you have this policy where anybody that's Black or Indian or some other race [than white] and wants to come to my show, even if they can buy the ticket, they can't come.' 'Well, yes that's right, that's our policy, but don't worry. You're going to have sold-out crowds.'

"And I said, 'No, you're missing my point. I'm not trying to tell you how to run your country. We have our problems still in America that we're still trying to sort out. But I just am not comfortable coming to a country and singing, with all the publicity that goes with it, and people who want to come and hear me sing are not allowed. So I can't do it.'

"So then, twice they offered me a lot of money, but the third time we met behind closed doors, and they said, 'Look, we're going to make you an offer which if you will pledge on your honor that you won't publicize this at all, the government will suspend Apartheid for your concerts.' In 1960. I said, 'You mean anybody who wants to go to my shows—?' They said, 'Yes.'

"So I did. I went to Durban and Port Elizabeth and Cape Town and Johannesburg and Pretoria and all these big cities in South Africa and had death threats. It's not exceptional that I would be given death threats in South Africa for that, but I moved around the stage. I [usually] stood at the mic and sang where Elvis [would] move all over the stage. I usually stood at the mic like Perry Como or somebody. But in South Africa, I moved around. I made sure that I was a moving target, that I didn't get shot or shot at.

"It was great, and as soon as I came home, the curtain came down again. They lifted the Apartheid curtain when I was there, and it dropped right after I left. I never talked about it. But I'm glad to talk about it now."

[In fact, Boone has discussed this episode before, for instance with the conservative newspaper The Washington Times in 2015.]

In conversation with Malone, Boone also explained why he refused to kiss actress Shirley Jones on screen in 1957's April Love: The kiss wasn't in the script so he hadn't had a chance to clear it with his wife on the day of filming. Additionally, Boone discussed getting temporarily banished from Christian media channels for dabbling in heavy metal music. Still undeterred, he led the cruise audience in a round of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." 

And those nude shower photos of him that have circulated online? They're real. The photographer was supposed to crop above the waist. Boone says fans still ask him to autograph the pics. "Mainly guys," Boone says. "So I do. They've got the pictures already. I might as well. I was in very good shape, I must say."

After Boone's conversation with Malone, he sat down with me on deck chairs along the promenade of the Disney Dream to talk a little more about his favorite travels—including the times he met Queen Elizabeth II.

"In Europe, I was big in many countries," he said. "Germany, France. I even recorded in Germany. And I met Queen Elizabeth twice. One of the most embarrassing moments in my life. You may not know this story. The first time I met her, I was still in college at Columbia [University], recording rock and roll, and I was invited to do a command performance for her, Princess Anne, Princess Margaret, Philip, and everybody. And I was instructed, after I sang my rock and roll songs in the Palladium Theatre, to get in line with all the other performers.

"They were all nervous to meet the Queen, and I was, too, but all I had to do was bow my head when she stood in front of me. I didn't have to curtsey like the women. I have to bow my head and say, 'Your Majesty.' And then, if she says anything, respond. You don't extend your hand to her. If she extends her hand to you, you take it, but otherwise, keep your hand to yourself, say, 'Your Majesty,' she'll nod, and move on.

"Well, I passed the test and I did it. But about 6 years later, I was back for the premiere of one of my films in London. And they invited me to be in another performance. This time, I remember, I was with Peter Finch, Peter Sellers, and the actress Claudia Cardinale. I'm standing in line, and I'm very blasé. I've done it, I know what to do, how hard is it? 

"And here she comes, and now I'm getting fluttery. But OK. 'Your Majesty,' keep my hand to myself, and if she says anything, I'll answer.

"So she stands in front of me. I say, 'Your Majesty'. And she says, 'We met before.' 

"I said, 'We did?'

"I didn't think she'd remember. That's why that came out! But I said to the Queen of England, 'We did?'

"She laughed, and she said, 'At the royal performance.' I said, 'I didn't think you'd remember me.' 

"There was a picture in the papers of that moment, of the Queen and Claudia Cardinale, and they're both laughing at something. Guess what they were laughing at?"

Frommer's joined the 2022 TCM Classic Cruise, a themed vacation experience in the Caribbean. Offered by the movie channel TCM since 2011, the TCM Classic Cruise invited Frommer's to attend the 2022 sailing. We retained full control over the topics and content of our coverage.